SWIFTS Nature Camp: A Joyful Community Takes Flight!

by Emily Pinkowitz, Education Director

If you’ve ever had the opportunity to go to camp, what do you remember? As someone who grew up in New York City, I remember the feel of the grass and smell of the earth, which was so different from the city streets. I remember the opportunity to learn through exploring, through making, through singing and dancing. I remember moments of solitude and independence. Most of all, I remember the community. As a child of two working parents, camp was a constant in my summer life. I formed bonds with staff and kids that lasted a lifetime. I built a sense of self that was distinct from school and home. It was freeing and world-expanding to feel a part of something different. Camp was the most joyful part of my life.

Group of campers getting sprayed by water hose and celebrating

As we’ve reimagined Bird Alliance of Oregon’s camps in the aftermath of the pandemic, we’ve given a lot of thought to this sense of joyful community. How can we build a summer for both children and staff that is safe, supportive, welcoming, world-expanding, and sustainable, in every sense of the word? How can we connect campers to the full breadth of what makes Bird Alliance of Oregon so special? As we renew our commitment to a sliding scale model, how can we design camps with every camper in mind and create a culture in which every camper feels a part of that story.

To celebrate this collective story-making, we’re giving our camp a name for the first time. This year, campers will be welcomed to Bird Alliance of Oregon’s SWIFTS Nature Camp. SWIFTS is an acronym that encompasses much of what makes camp here so unique: Science, Wildlife, Imagination, Friendship, and Taking a Stand. We chose swifts as a mascot because they embody so much of what we strive to foster in children. They’re collaborative—they roost together and help each other raise young. They’re at home in the city and in the forest. They do everything on the wing. They’re both hyper-local and roaming explorers. And they’re iconically Portland.

Vaux's Swifts, photo by Tara Lemezis

Along with this new name, this summer you’ll see a few changes to camp. We’re imbuing the camp day with more music and performance. We’re looking to add conservation action to every single camp. And we’ve created tracks to help families find the right camp for their kiddos, from the artist-scientist Creature Creators to the adventure-seeking Wilderness Scouts. These tracks continue in three-week cycles throughout the summer, enabling families who choose to attend multiple weeks of camp to build on their sense of community from week to week.

We’ve also made some changes to the camp structure. To help our staff bring their best selves each day, we’ve shortened the day to end at 3 p.m. and set an early 2 p.m. release time on Fridays. At the same time, to support working parents, we’re offering aftercare for the first time, enabling campers to stay until 5:30 p.m.

To help steward these changes, we’ve welcomed a new Senior Educator, Camp Specialist to our team. Andrés Umaña is native to the highlands of Colombia, a temperate, rainy, and mountainous zone in the Andes that resembles the Pacific Northwest in weather and vegetation. He brings with him nearly two decades of experience in environmental science, sustainable travel, and youth education in both the U.S. and Colombia, and hopes to instill a sense of belonging, compassion, and urgent care for our natural world in younger generations under an equity lens.

In this work, Andrés is building upon the incredible foundation built by former education staff including James Davis, Jennifer Devlin, Steve Robertson, Ian Abraham, and Tim Donner, and even more full-time educators, seasonal educators, and support staff. So much of camp will remain the same, and their energy, dedication and spirit will continue to fly through these programs as we welcome our first roost of SWIFT campers this June. We’re also indebted to the Spencer Higgins Education Fund for creating the support to make our camps inclusive and accessible to all. If you’d like to donate to the Spencer Higgins Education Fund to support our sliding scale model, click here.

Summer Camp Registration Opens on January 21 at 9 a.m.!

Summer Camp

Large group of summer campers in front of downed Redwood tree
Camp, photo by Abby VanLeuven.